We Know Our Rights Thanks to Mason

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 29, 2000 | Go to article overview
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We Know Our Rights Thanks to Mason

Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights . . . namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty . . . and pursuing happiness and safety.

- George Mason, Virginia

Declaration of Rights

Gun owners and free-speech advocates alike would be mum without the Bill of Rights. Yet few know that a Colonial planter - George Mason, the portly, pushy delegate from Virginia - came up with the idea.

"I think that's the fate of anyone who works in history and doesn't work for Mount Vernon or Monticello," says Susan Borchardt, laughing heartily.

She's the deputy director of collections at Gunston Hall, Mason's home near Lorton. "I worked at Carlyle House in Alexandria before, and everyone says the same thing about [Scottish merchant] John Carlyle."

Ringing in the 245-year-old home's 50th anniversary as a historic site this year, staffers at Gunston Hall easily extol the magic of Mason. As a Virginia delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, big George refused to sign the Constitution because the document had no bill of rights, gave too much power to the federal government and was hypocritical about slave importation.

Known even by his family as a man who would lose himself in his thoughts (and his gardens) while strolling about his 5,000-acre estate, Mason had pondered and penned over those issues before.

He wrote Virginia's Declaration of Rights, a colossal proposal for its time, in May 1776. Its credibility was enhanced because Mason was known among fellow Virginians as the best expert on republic-style government.

"The far-less-known Virginia Bill of Rights is one of the most influential documents ever written," writes historian Page Smith, "entirely worthy of a place beside the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence."

Mason was the first to call for jury trials, elections and freedom of press and religion. The state Bill of Rights was used as a model for the U.S. Bill of Rights, France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"What makes him really relevant," Ms. Borchardt says, is the way "his basic writing speaks to us all. . . . " The words " `all men are created equally free and independent,' really have changed with each generation," she says, "and they've expanded so that we now look at all of society being equal. When he wrote those words, of course, that wasn't true. You had to be male, 21, white, a property owner."

Indeed, Mason did not free his 90 slaves. The "conflicted conscience" defense is bandied about for him as it is for Washington, Madison and Jefferson, also considered liberal for their time.

To his credit, however, Mason was the most vocal, especially at the Constitutional Convention. He called every master "a petty tyrant" and warned of "the judgment of heaven" if the "infernal" slave trafficking did not cease.

Mason's refusal to sign the Constitution hurt his reputation, but he didn't care.

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